America is in the grips of a widening epidemic. Or, the country would be, if autism were classified as a disease.
One of every 68 children today is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. That's up from one in 150 in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is no cure for autism. There is only treatment — and the results are mixed. Through therapy, some people on the spectrum can function in society. Severe autistic behavior is often treated with psychotropic pharmaceutical drugs such as Risperdal. This treatment is more for the autistic person's family, because while the pills often render the patient “zombie-like” — as one mother of an autistic child told me — it's better than watching him “try to bang his head through a windshield.”
Sometimes nothing works. In those cases, parents lost in despair have resorted to murder. When a Sunnyvale mother fatally shot her 22-year-old autistic son and then herself in 2012, other parents of autistic children told the San Jose Mercury News that they understood.
In this kind of situation, any possible chance at help, no matter how remote, is seized upon. Across the country, more and more parents of autistic children are resorting to a solution that has potential, but is also fraught with great risk. If caught, the parents face jail time or having their kids seized by Child Protective Services.
They're giving their kids marijuana.
And it's working.
Though she lives in hipster-friendly Austin, Thalia Michelle considers herself a typical Texas Republican. She drives a minivan and goes to a conservative Bible-thumping church. It was church that led Michelle to try a marijuana extract on her son, Lance.
Lance's diagnosis is moderate to severe. He's about to turn 10, but his cognitive development is of a child half that age. Michelle tried everything aside from the heaviest of pharmaceuticals, without much progress — until she made a connection: One-third of children diagnosed with autism also have childhood epilepsy.
Cannabis oil can halt or greatly reduce the occurrence of seizures associated with epilepsy, early studies have shown. Therefore, cannabis might help with autism.
Buoyed by support from Amy Lou, a friend from their church, Michelle gave Lance some hemp-based oil in January 2014. Within four days, he had visibly improved.
“We saw gains in eye contact and behavior,” Michelle told me. “Suddenly, I had a newfound hope for my child.”
As usual with cannabis in medicine, there is next to no research on marijuana's potential as an autism treatment. A search of studies in the National Institutes of Health's database reveals a lone literature review in process, which won't be published until next year.
Meanwhile, the anecdotes are rolling in. “There are gains in cognition, gains in eye contact,” said Michelle, who with Lou co-founded an advocacy group, Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism. “People are speaking their first words — at 25 years old.”
If the government was banning a natural treatment for a curable disease, there would be a national outcry — or at least a voice in the media as loud as the crackpots claiming vaccines are autism's cause. But since the treatment is weed, there are only unanswered phone calls to legislators and ignored testimony at state houses.
In California, a physician can recommend medical marijuana to any “seriously ill” resident. Whether or not that includes someone with autism — does a neurodevelopmental disorder make you sick? — is unclear. But in states where cannabis is more tightly controlled, the drug is unavailable. Autism is not listed as a qualifying condition in any of the country's medical-only states. Nor is cannabis available for autism in the Bible Belt states where non-psychoactive oil is becoming available to severely sick children, such as epileptics. This means parents must resort to subterfuge — and it also means autistic children are denied the full treatment.
Red states are keening to “CBD-only” marijuana laws. CBD is cannabidiol, the cannabinoid that does not deliver a high. But THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana's “intoxicant,” has in some cases been the cannabinoid to help patients with autism, according to Berkeley physician Dr. Frank Lucido.
Michelle would like to try whole plant oil, THC included, on Lance. She cannot without breaking the law. In Texas — where bills to legalize CBD oil and whole plant medical marijuana are running into serious opposition in the Legislature — Michelle can only access hemp-derived CBD oil. She says these oils work, but these are the same “treatments” derided as bunk cures by some medical marijuana advocates.
Even with no THC, the treatment still carries a legal risk. Look at Shona Banda's case: the 37-year old Kansas mother uses cannabis oil to soothe her Crohn's disease. After her son called bullshit on a DARE presentation at school, school officials called the cops, whose “welfare check” turned up some oil. Her son is now in state custody.
Michelle dealt with her own CPS visit after Lance's therapist learned of the CBD oil and reported her. Since it has no THC, the oil is legal and CPS left her alone. However, “I know plenty of mommies who are committing felonies” to get their kids medicine, Michelle told me. She also knows of more murder-suicides by parents who have run out of options: six in the autism community in 2014, she said.
Marijuana might have avoided that. At the least, it appears to help. Yet as lawmakers finally admit that cannabis could help kids with cancer or epilepsy, autism is out of the conversation.
“That's what's criminal,” Michelle said.